March 31, 2018
By John Heisler
So maybe, just maybe, Sister Jean actually made a pit stop in Columbus Friday night on her way to San Antonio.
Or maybe she just left behind some of her pixie dust for Arike Ogunbowale, Jackie Young, Jessica Shepard and their University of Notre Dame women’s basketball teammates to help them vanquish unbeaten and top-rated Connecticut in a late-night NCAA national semifinal at Nationwide Arena.
As vaunted as the Huskies have been, Notre Dame’s 91-89 overtime victory marked the second consecutive year an unbeaten Connecticut team has fallen in the Final Four semifinal round.
If the perception is that it takes a minor miracle or two (or more) to defeat UConn, then it’s safe to say Irish coach Muffet McGraw’s team produced its share on this amazing evening.
It’s also the fourth time Notre Dame has eliminated UConn in the NCAA semifinals, the Irish “lucky charm” round as McGraw referred to it after the epic contest ended a little short of midnight.
And it’s the fourth time the Irish have defeated the Huskies in overtime (against no losses) — following Notre Dame wins in that category in the 2011-12 regular season in South Bend, another in the 2012 national semifinals in Denver and then a three-overtime affair in 2013 at Notre Dame.
When McGraw and Ogunbowale entered the shrieking bedlam that comprised the winning locker room, yet another round of screams erupted.
As the Irish head coach checked the final stat sheet she noted Young’s game-high and career-high 32 points to go with a game-high-tying 11 rebounds (after she scored only two points in the regular-season matchup in December in Hartford).
Then she pointed out Shepard’s 15 points and 11 rebounds.
And she could hardly pass on complimenting Ogunbowale’s clutch step-back jump shot (“the biggest shot of her career”) from just inside the three-point line, with Napheesa Collier defending, with a single full second left to finally end the drama.
As the Irish found out at the end of regulation, it doesn’t pay to leave any time left on the clock for Geno Auriemma’s crew — and so they didn’t in the overtime.
In a season in which Notre Dame to date has suffered more ACL tears than defeats, the Irish roll on.
UConn set a not-so-good tone early with two turnovers in the first minute, and the Huskies ended the period with a half-dozen.
The Irish hit five of their first six shots for an 11-6 lead — with Notre Dame heading on an 8-0 run over 1:57 as UConn missed eight of 10 shots. Young connected on five of her six field-goal attempts in the opening period and her 11 points matched UConn’s opening period total until Katie Lou Samuelson’s bail-out three at the buzzer made it 24-14 after 10 minutes.
Notre Dame’s first-quarter shooting percentage (.588 on 10 of 17) compared to that of UConn (.300 on six of 20) said it all.
But as spectacular as the Irish were in the opening quarter UConn was better in the second.
The Huskies scored the first six points of the second period to prompt a Notre Dame timeout at 8:03. The run reached 10 in a row for UConn before Young pushed her scoring total to 13 points. Later the Huskies scored 14 points in a row as the Irish missed seven straight shots.
The second-period shooting figures again told the story — UConn hit 12 of 19 (.632) while Notre Dame was only five of 16 (.313).
Azura Stevens came off the bench for 10 points and six rebounds in that period alone for the Huskies. And Notre Dame had seven second-period turnovers.
The Irish limited UConn guards Crystal Dangerfield and Kia Nurse to a combined two points on one-of-12 shooting–yet the Huskies led 41-34 at intermission.
Notre Dame fought back in the third — as four straight points by Ogunbowale made it 48-47 for UConn almost exactly midway through the quarter. Then a Marina Mabrey three regained the lead for the Irish at 2:21 at 54-53. An Ogunbowale three again regained it for Notre Dame at 57-56 at 1:35, then the Huskies pulled back ahead 60-57 after three periods.
The Irish came within one at 60-59 on a Kristina Nelson hoop 54 seconds into the last period. Then came seven straight points by the Huskies as Notre Dame went scoreless for nearly three minutes.
At the 4:54 media timeout McGraw’s crew got back within a pair on an old-fashioned Young three-point play–and then within one at 71-70 on a Young bucket at 3:42.
Ogunbowale’s hoop gave the Irish the lead at 73-72 at 3:14 after a UConn turnover. Kathryn Westbeld missed a layup, then Williams put UConn back on top at 1:54. At 1:32 Young’s free throws gave Notre Dame a 75-74 edge, followed by a Westbeld steal.
Then came amazing: Ogunbowale nailed one from the left wing from Mabrey at :46 with the shot clock expiring — and UConn called time at :44.8. The Irish had hit five of their last seven shots to lead 77-74. Williams threw the ball away, and the Irish called time at :21.3.
An immediate UConn foul sent Ogunbowale to the line at :20.1. She hit both for a five-point Notre Dame lead, prompting a UConn timeout. But a Williams three from the corner and a Nurse steal and layup with nine ticks left sent the game to overtime tied at 79.
Said McGraw later to her team, “At the end of regulation when we should have won it we got a little dejected for a minute and then we pulled ourselves together.”
In the extra session, a Shepard lay-in and Ogunbowale free throws gave the Irish a four-point cushion. A Young free throw pushed her total to 32 points before the Huskies called time at :43.4.
UConn tied it on a Dangerfield three at :27 and Notre Dame called timeout at :14.6. The Irish had the ball in front of their bench, and they got it in to Shepard (actually the third inbounds option) who drove toward the hoop but passed on a potential lay-in.
With eight seconds left Mabrey put the ball in the hands of Ogunbowale who did her thing at the death.
Another year and a second straight UConn first-of-the-season defeat in the national semifinals.
“I’m a pretty smart guy,” said Auriemma after it ended. “I don’t need to learn this two years in a row.”
Ogunbowale claimed Thursday she did not remember much about the first Irish-UConn game in December.
Irish fans won’t ever let her forget this one.
Former NBA great Kobe Bryant sat behind the Huskies’ bench and later tweeted praise for Ogunbowale’s late-game play.
Arike tweeted back to him, “Wow, my life is complete. The GOAT.”
Bryant had a great retort: “Nah . . . it’s complete by finishing the job on Sunday.”
In any event, Sister Jean would have been proud.